How to Write a ‘Why Do You Want to Go to This College’ Essay
Sometimes the prompt is as short as two words: “Why Tufts?” Other times, the prompt, like that of Cornell’s, is rather wordy: “Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s ‘any person…any study’ founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.”
Yet both of these prompts — and so many other college essay prompts — pose the same question: Why do you want to go to this college?
The Top Colleges That Ask “Why College” Essay Prompts
The following top 25 national universities in the 2023 US News & World Report ranking pose “Why College” essays:
- Princeton University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Stanford University
- Yale University
- University of Chicago
- University of Pennsylvania
- Duke University
- Northwestern University
- Dartmouth College
- Brown University
- Rice University
- Cornell University
- Columbia University
- University of Notre Dame
- Georgetown University
- University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
- University of Southern California
The following top 25 liberal arts colleges in the 2023 US News & World Report ranking pose “Why College” essays:
- Swarthmore College
- Wellesley College
- Bowdoin College
- Claremont McKenna College
- Washington and Lee University
- Davidson College
- Hamilton College
- Barnard College
- Colgate University (for the 2022-2023 admissions cycle, essay prompts only appeared after students submitted applications — it was very sneaky of Colgate!)
- Haverford College
The Specific “Why College” Essay Prompts for the Top Colleges
Of the top 25 national universities in the 2023 US News & World Report ranking, the following is a breakdown of the specific wording of their “Why College” essays, along with the respective word counts:
|College / University||2023 US News Rank (“Best National Universities”)||“Why College” Essay Prompt||Maximum Word Count|
|Princeton University||#1||As a research institution that also prides itself on its liberal arts curriculum, Princeton allows students to explore areas across the humanities and the arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. What academic areas most pique your curiosity, and how do the programs offered at Princeton suit your particular interests?||250 Words|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||#2||Tell us more about why this field of study at MIT appeals to you.||100 Words|
|Stanford University||#3||Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford.||50 Words|
|Yale University||#3||What is it about Yale that has led you to apply?||125 Words|
|University of Chicago||#6||How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.||No Word Limit|
|Johns Hopkins University||#7||N/A|
|University of Pennsylvania||#7||How will you explore community at Penn? Consider how Penn will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape Penn.|
Considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected, describe how you intend to explore your academic and intellectual interests at the University of Pennsylvania.
|150-200 Words & 150-200 Words|
|California Institute of Technology||#9||N/A|
|Duke University||#10||What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you? If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well.||250 Words|
|Northwestern University||#10||Help us understand how you might engage specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities here. We are curious about what these specifics are, as well as how they may enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond.||300 Words|
|Dartmouth College||#12||Dartmouth celebrates the ways in which its profound sense of place informs its profound sense of purpose. As you seek admission to Dartmouth’s Class of 2027, what aspects of the College’s academic program, community, or campus environment attract your interest? In short, Why Dartmouth?||100 Words|
|Brown University||#13||Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about any academic interests that excite you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue them while also embracing topics with which you are unfamiliar.||200-250 Words|
|Rice University||#15||Based upon your exploration of Rice University, what elements of the Rice experience appeal to you?||150 Words|
|Washington University in St. Louis||#15||N/A|
|Cornell University||#17||College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:|
Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals?
College of Arts and Sciences:
Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person…any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.
Cornell SC Johnson College of Business:
What kind of a business student are you? Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you. Your response should convey how your interests align with the school to which you are applying within the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management or the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration).
How do your interests directly connect with Cornell Engineering? If you have an intended major, what draws you to that department at Cornell Engineering? If you are unsure what specific engineering field you would like to study, describe how your general interest in engineering most directly connects with Cornell Engineering. It may be helpful to concentrate on one or two things that you are most excited about.
College of Human Ecology:
How has your decision to apply to the College of Human Ecology been influenced by your related experiences? How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future?
School of Industrial and Labor Relations:
Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you. Your response should show us that your interests align with the ILR School.
|650 Words for All, Except for College of Engineering’s 250 Words|
|Columbia University||#18||Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia.||200 Words|
|University of Notre Dame||#18||Notre Dame is a Catholic university, founded by members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, with a mission to educate the hearts and minds of students. What excites you about attending Notre Dame?||200 Words|
|University of California, Berkeley||#20||N/A|
|University of California, Los Angeles||#20||N/A|
|Carnegie Mellon University||#22||N/A|
|Georgetown University||#22||What does it mean to you to be educated? How might Georgetown College help you achieve this aim?||Prompt Should Not Exceed 1-Page, Single-Spaced|
|New York University||#25||N/A|
|University of Michigan – Ann Arbor||#25||Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?||Minimum 100 Words, Maximum 550 Words|
|University of Southern California||#25||Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections.||250 Words|
|University of Virginia||#25||N/A|
Of the top 25 liberal arts colleges in the 2023 US News & World Report ranking, the following is a breakdown of the specific wording of their “Why College” essays, along with the respective word counts:
|College / University||2023 US News Rank (“Best Liberal Arts Colleges”)||“Why College” Essay Prompt||Maximum Word Count|
|Swarthmore College||#4||Why are you interested in applying to and attending Swarthmore?||250 Words (1 of 3 Essay Options)|
|Wellesley College||#5||When choosing a college community, you are choosing a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. Generations of inspiring women have thrived in the Wellesley community, and we want to know what aspects of this community inspire you to consider Wellesley. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the “Wellesley 100” is a good place to start. Visit The Wellesley 100 and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why. (Not-so-secret tip: The “why” matters to us.)||250-400 Words|
|Bowdoin College||#6||How did you first learn about Bowdoin?||140 Characters|
|Claremont McKenna College||#9||Why do you want to attend CMC?||150-250 Words|
|Washington and Lee University||#11||Please describe how you have familiarized yourself with Washington and Lee University and what aspects of W&L’s community are most exciting to you.||250 Words|
|Davidson College||#15||There are just under 4,000 4-year colleges and universities in the United States. Being as specific as possible, what interests you most about Davidson College.||250-300 Words|
|Hamilton College||#15||While the primary criteria for admission are academic achievement, intellectual promise, and community engagement, Hamilton also seeks to admit candidates who are a good fit with the programs and experiences offered by the College. Please take this opportunity to tell us about your interest in Hamilton and, in particular, why you believe it is a place where you can thrive. Be open. Be honest. Be brief.||100-250 Words|
|Barnard College||#18||What factors encouraged your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you?||300 Words|
|Colgate University||#18||Colgate students immerse themselves in social and intellectual pursuits that inspire them. Tell us what inspires you and why you want to pursue that at Colgate.|
I’m drawn to Colgate because…
|200-250 Words & 13 Words|
|Haverford College||#18||Please tell us what motivated you to apply to Haverford and what excites you most as you imagine your Haverford experience.||150 Words|
|University of Richmond||#18||N/A|
What Colleges Want to See in “Why College” Essay Responses
Admissions officers at America’s elite universities want to see that students have done their homework on the institution they’re applying to. They want to see that the student isn’t just submitting another application for the sake of submitting another application. In fact, so many universities ask “Why College” essay questions because admissions officers seek to admit students who they believe will matriculate. After all, their yield, or the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll, matters to them.
The Importance of Demonstrated Interest
A great way to shape the yield is by admitting students they think are likely to enroll — or quantifying a student’s Demonstrated Interest. And what’s a good indicator of a student’s Demonstrated Interest? An applicant who cites specific after specific in their “Why College” essay. Likewise, a good indicator that a student has no intention of enrolling or that the college is a backup for the student is a “Why College” essay devoid of specifics.
How to Find Specifics for “Why College” Essays
Students searching for specifics to include in “Why College” essays should zero in on the school’s student newspaper (especially if the newspaper has archives dating back many years), Facebook, Instagram, Google Earth, and more.
If there’s a lecture series a student wishes to write about, chances are there are photos of the talk available on Facebook or Instagram. Students should comb through those photos as well as the captions. By doing so, they’ll be able to include small details, like the fact that it took place in Lowell Lecture Hall.
How to Write a “Why College” Essay
Some students worry that painting a portrait of themselves on the school’s campus is presumptuous since they may not earn admission. But admissions officers know the drill. They know students are painting a portrait of their dream, and admissions officers need to be able to envision you at their school, getting involved in the college’s community.
In addition to citing specific after specific, it’s also important that students write this essay in a conversational tone. College essays should not be formal — they’ll read as too dry. As such, students should aim to avoid beginning sentences with words like “however,” “nevertheless,” and “thus” as much as possible. It’s all about writing colloquially!
The “Why College” essay exercise is ultimately all about showing rather than telling. Telling a college that it’s a student’s first choice isn’t credible since that college knows the student can write that sentence for every school they apply to. But by including specific after specific, by showing rather than telling, they have a better chance of convincing admissions officers of their message.
5 Things Applicants Must Do in “Why College” Essays
- Tailor most sentences to the school they’re applying to. If a student can read the sentence aloud and replace the school’s name with another school, and the sentence still works, the student should delete it!
- Write about themselves actively engaged on the school’s campus. It’s not an essay just about the student. And it’s not an essay just about the school. It’s the student plus the school.
- Cite enduring specifics about a school, like programs, institutes, the school’s culture, traditions, and so much more.
- Write only about the school in question. While it may seem obvious, many students compare the school to other institutions. Yikes!
- Double-check the accuracy of the specifics cited. Programs end. Activities get eliminated. Make sure all of the specifics mentioned remain timely.
5 Most Common Mistakes in “Why College” Essays
- Students cut and paste their “Why College” essays for multiple universities. It’s transparent to admissions officers when students are not tailoring their “Why College” essay to the school they’re applying to. For instance, when a student writes that they want to attend a school because of it’s beautiful campus and engaged student body, admissions officers know full well that they likely used this same sentence for the other schools to which they applied. Instead, every sentence should contain a specific reference that applies only to the school. In a “Why Columbia” essay, if one can replace Columbia with Harvard and the sentence still works, delete it!
- Students name-drop professors and classes, thinking those count as specifics. Admissions officers are unlikely to believe a student wishes to attend a university because a specific person works there. Besides, no one likes a name-dropper. And they know students can easily cut and paste class names from one university’s course catalog to the next. In any case, classes change from year to year. Instead, students should endeavor to capture enduring specifics about a university.
- Students write about only themselves for vast chunks of “Why College” essays, forgetting to write about the college. The “Why College” essay should be considered a date. If someone speaks about themselves endlessly on a date without asking about the other person, it’s unlikely to end well.
- Students cite incorrect specifics about a university. Maybe it’s a leftover from another school’s “Why College” essay, or the student didn’t do their homework. Either way, writing about the D-Plan for Duke or the gorges for Penn will not bode well for a student’s candidacy at these schools.
- Students cite specifics in laundry lists. While “Why College” essays should be brimming with specific after specific, it’s important not to include these specifics in a laundry list. Instead of naming one activity after another that a student hopes to participate in, applicants should let each activity breathe. They can do so by citing more minor specifics about the individual activity they’re referencing. In short, don’t just name the activity, but go into detail about that activity.
FAQs About the “Why This College?” Essay
Do applicants need to consult with students at a school to find specifics?
It’s not necessary. All the information you’ll need to find the specifics is available online. You just have to know where to look. For example, if you’re researching the Cornell Speech & Debate Society, go on the group’s Facebook page. Do you see how they recently competed at the Hell Froze Over Tournament in Austin? It’s these very kinds of specifics that showcase a student has done their homework.
Should applicants take extensive notes on college tours and information sessions to use this information in “Why College” essays?
No, because those aren’t the kinds of specifics worthy of including in “Why College” essays. That’s general information about universities offered on tours and info sessions. Instead, students should endeavor to teach admissions officers things they don’t know about their school — not regurgitate the school’s already-existing marketing material.
Is it impossible to find genuine specifics for “Why College” essays?
No, it’s pretty easy. Students simply need to know where to look. Did you know the archives for The Cornell Daily Sun date back to 1880? The stuff one can find out about Cornell in such articles — and the search function makes it relatively easy to navigate!
Does every university care about Demonstrated Interest?
Some universities claim not to care about Demonstrated Interest. For example, Emory University writes on its website, “Demonstrated interest” is not a factor in our application review process. Things have no impact on the evaluation of your application.”
But Emory is the university that created Demonstrated Interest. No matter how loudly or how vociferously Emory tries to argue that they don’t care about Demonstrated Interest, we urge students and parents not to believe Emory’s marketing material. Emory, like all highly selective universities, wants students to apply. As such, they don’t want to do anything to discourage students from applying — like creating barriers such as making it seem like students need to visit the campus to improve their case for admission.
So when a college tells applicants they don’t measure Demonstrated Interest, we urge that message to go in one ear and out the other. Arguably, the only school that doesn’t care about Demonstrated Interest is Harvard College — because Harvard knows students want to go there over just about every other school. Most other universities are insecure, and, as such, they want students to prove they want to go there.
Ivy Coach Helps Students Craft Compelling “Why College” Essays
Helping students craft powerful “Why College” essays that not only wow admissions officers but teach them intel they don’t even know about their school is a big part of what we do. If you’re interested in Ivy Coach‘s assistance, fill out our free consultation form, and we’ll be in touch.
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